Let's Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation? : The Salt These faux-Polynesian bars first became popular in the 1960s. Now, they're making a comeback. But some Pacific Islanders say there is a darker side to these downtown slices of paradise.
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Let's Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation?

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Let's Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation?

Let's Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The faux-Polynesian rum palaces that were all the rage in the 1960s - the tiki bar - is making a comeback, but there's a darker side to these little slices of kitschy paradise for some Pacific Islanders. NPR's Maanvi Singh reports.

MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: I'm at a bar called Archipelago in Washington, D.C, with a friend of mine, Angelo Villagomez. He's from the Pacific island of Saipan. And our drink has just arrived at the table.

ANGELO VILLAGOMEZ: So the name of this drink is the Pineapple of Hospitality, and it's a whole pineapple that's been hollowed out. And I think there's some sort of adult beverage on the inside.

SINGH: It's mostly rum with some fruit on top, and it's flaming (laughter).

VILLAGOMEZ: Oh, yeah. That's lime. And it's - oh, yeah, and it's on fire.

SINGH: This place is tiki kitsch to the max - fishing floats hanging from the ceiling, a lamp in the corner is shaped like a sexy hula dancer, and by the bar, they've got a shrine to Tom Selleck. It all reminds Angelo of a 1960s TV series he grew up with.

VILLAGOMEZ: I feel like I'm in "Gidget Goes To Hawaii."

SINGH: In fact, tiki bars first started popping up post-World War II as people in the military returned home from the Pacific theater. That's according to Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco.

KEN ALBALA: And had been to places like Tonga and Fiji and the whole South Pacific.

SINGH: They wanted to bring a piece of that tropical paradise home with them. But the thing about tiki bars is...

ALBALA: They make no pretense to being authentically Polynesian.

SINGH: Sure, the decor draws inspiration from these places. Tiki is a Maori word for a type of stone or wooden carving found all over the Polynesian Islands, but the American tiki bar hardly resembles anything you'd find on the Pacific isles. These bars, oddly enough, tend to serve Chinese food, and the signature rum drinks are completely American inventions. Here's Kalewa Correa from the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Center here in D.C..

KALEWA CORREA: It's just taking all those cultures and just putting them in a - in a blender and blending it together and creating this idea of this Isle of Tiki, which is this mythical place that tiki bars come from.

SINGH: The man working the real blender at the bar tonight is Owen Thompson. He's the owner of Archipelago.

OWEN THOMSON: It gives you a reason sort of step out of your daily life. And you're in this place, and it's like, you know, island music, big fruity rum drinks, thatch and bamboo everywhere. And you just kind of, like, let it all go for a bit.

SINGH: Let it all go. That's something type A Washington-D.C.-types like me should probably do a bit more often, but here's the thing. I'm drinking a pina colada out of a ceramic mug that's shaped like what's actually an important cultural symbol for the Hawaiians, the Maori and the Samoans. You've got to stop and think about that for a minute, says Correa from the Smithsonian.

CORREA: What you're looking at - the carvings - are either representations of gods or the representation of ancestors.

SINGH: He says it would be like having a Christian-themed bar, drinking out of a glass shaped like the Virgin Mary.

CORREA: Really, when you look at the root of it, it's exploitation. It's ignoring the real lives, the real cultures and the real challenges that we do face.

SINGH: Like the fact that global warming is threatening their homeland and their traditional ways of living. Angelo agrees up to a point. He says the whole tiki phenomenon is also affecting how Americans think about the Pacific Islands.

VILLAGOMEZ: Were seen as this place that's just a tourist destination - that it's only - it's only a place that you go to have fun.

SINGH: And that doesn't sit well with many islanders who think of themselves as earnest hard workers. But he's still able to enjoy his Pineapple of Hospitality.

VILLAGOMEZ: I'm feeling the hospitality. Let me tell you. The way we look in the popular culture is more of an issue of identity, but, man, this rum is good (laughter).

SINGH: Maanvi Singh, NPR News.

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